Middletown explosion: was power plant blast caused by gas leak?

The Middletown explosion at an under-construction power plant in Connecticut may have been caused by a natural gas leak, according to officials. The blast is reported to have killed two people and injured several more.

By , Staff writer

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    An aerial view of the aftermath of an explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems plant located along the Connecticut River in Middletown, Conn., on Sunday.
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A powerful explosion heard and felt miles away from the natural-gas power plant in Middletown, Conn., where it occurred Sunday morning may have killed at least two people and injured several more.

The explosion at the 620-megawatt plant, being built by Kleen Energy Systems LLC, may have been caused by a natural gas leak, according to a report in the Hartford Courant, the state’s main newspaper.

Around 50 workers were in the section of the power plant where the explosion occurred at 11:37 a.m., blowing portions of the building away, Al Santostefano, Middletown’s deputy fire marshal, told the Associated Press. Although the cause of the explosion is under investigation, Mr. Santostefano told the Courant the explosion was related to natural gas.

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The explosion seems to have occurred when workers attempted a ‘blow down’ of natural gas pipelines, a procedure that involves the purging of gas from the pipelines, he said.

Workers were purging the pipelines when a wind caused a backdraft of gas which was ignited by nearby welding torches, according to Ed McKeon, posting on local news blog The Middletown Eye, who spoke to local officials at the plant site Sunday. He also reports that a local official said some houses in the vicinity of the plant have reported damage to foundations and walls.

Residents in homes up to 10 miles away heard the explosion and felt the vibrations from the shock, news reports said. Many thought there had been an earthquake.

Officials have not confirmed the number of casualties and injuries, but local news reports suggest as many as five workers were killed and as many as 14 injured, six of them critically.

Search and rescue teams and firefighters flooded the site after the explosion. According to The Middletown Press, a gas pipeline that was ablaze has now been shut off.

The explosion occurred in the rear of the largest building in the plant, Santostefano told the Courant.

"It's possible that there might be people trapped in the rubble," he said. "There was a lot of steel, from what I could see."

The power plant sits on 137 acres in the industrial part of Middletown, bounded on one side by the Connecticut River and another by residentially zoned land. Construction on the plant began in 2008 and it was to come online slightly ahead of schedule this summer.

The plant would burn natural gas to produce electricity, but it could also burn low sulfur oil when natural gas is unavailable or uneconomic, according to project documents. There was some local opposition to running an oil pipeline through a patch of wetlands in the area, but the line was ultimately approved by the city council in 2008, according to an archived news report from the Courant.

The plant, one of the biggest to be built in New England in recent years, was supposed to bring cleaner and potentially cheaper power to the area, according to the Courant. The plant reportedly has a 15-year contract with Connecticut Light & Power.

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